In recent years, there has been a growing concern on the way we eat, being it motivated by health concerns, animal welfare or the environment. It is impossible not to have noticed the rising popularity of vegetarianism. Our generation is being strongly marked by change and the fight for what we believe in.
“Where millennials lead, businesses and governments will follow.” – The Economist
And so, markets adjusted to these growing demand for veg-friendly products. From the increasing supply of vegetarian products with even specific store sections, to the change in menus in your usual restaurants, to the emergence of new veg-friendly businesses, the change is visible everywhere. Even policy has changed. In 2017, the Portuguese Parliament approved a law making mandatory that every canteen and public cafeteria offers a vegetarian meal option.
When did this change happen?
According to Associação Vegetariana Portuguesa (AVP – Portuguese Vegetarian Association), this emerging market has increased 514% from 2008 to 2018. In this 10-year period, the number of veg-friendly stores increased 323%, existing now, in Portugal, 172 businesses of this kind (both restaurants and stores).
In Portugal, 120 000 people follow a vegetarian diet, representing 1.2% of the population. According to a study by Nielson, women and people between 25 and 34 years old are the ones representing a higher percentage of non consumption of meat, fish and dairy.
In touristic regions, vegetarianism has become a business opportunity, since these regions are not only searched for its traditional food, but more and more for the vegetarian offer, attracting a new type of consumers.
Nonetheless, there is a huge and worrying consumption of meat and fish in Portugal. Regarding meat consumption, according to Instituto Nacional de Estatística (INE – Nacional Statistics Institute), in 2018, the average Portuguese consumed 114 kilos of meat. Portugal is also the European country that registers the highest consumption of fish per capita, consuming 55 kilos, on average, per person each year.
The situation in Europe is not that different. The European Union accounts for only 6.8% of the world’s population, but are responsible for 16% of the world’s total meat consumption.
Analyzing the most recent available data (2013) from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Spain is the country registering the highest meat consumption per capita (94 Kg) and Georgia the lowest (28 Kg). In 2013, the average Portuguese consumed 88Kg of meat. East countries registered much lower consumption per capita, when compared with western countries, which can be a consequence of average income, since consumption of meat is socially associated with a higher purchasing power.
The impact of meat on the environment
What we eat has a huge impact on the environment, avoiding meat consumption is one of the most efficient ways to reduce the negative damage causing climate change. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is rising every day and beef production is one of the main contributors. For every gram of protein, beef production releases 221.6 g of CO2 into the atmosphere. .
The impact of meat consumption is not limited to carbon emissions; producing beef also requires a lot of space and water. Every kg of beef requires 15 400 liters of water, lamb consumes 8 736 liters, while pig and chicken consume 6 000 liters. Vegetables, on the other hand, consume only 300 liters per kg. Furthermore, livestock provides only 18% of the calories we eat, farming them uses 83% of farmland.
A study by the University of Oxford, showed meat and dairy produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and takes ups 83% of farmland, but delivers just 18% of daily calories and 37% of protein. On top of that, early this year, Greenpeace stated that over 70% of EU farmland is used to feed livestock which means, for the production of meat and dairy.
A major downside of meat production occurred during the 1990’s, when 94 000 square km of forests a year were destroyed to plant crops for livestock, according to FAO. This has dangerous consequences for the environment. Nowadays, land retains just 1% of total CO2, while in the past, it was able to retain 7%. The UN recalls the importance of stopping deforestation, one of the causes of erosion and climate change.
The impacts of consuming meat are huge, starting by greenhouse emissions, passing through the large amount of natural resources needed, and ending with pollution. In fact, water pollution is one of the main consequences of meat production. Besides, animal waste and fertilizers end up degrading water suppliers, which causes severe negative impact on biodiversity.
BBC states that, eating a steak a day, in one year, is equivalent to driving 11 571 km or taking 8 flights from London to Malaga, and it uses the space equivalent to 31 tennis courts.
What can we do about it?
United Nations agencies such as Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization recognize that decreasing meat consumption would positively impact the environmental problems. Furthermore, the European Union agriculture outlook showed a study pointing out that reducing 50% of meat consumption as well as dairy products and eggs, would allow for a reduction of around 25% to 40% of agriculture greenhouse gas emissions.
For this ending, there are several movements promoting a lower meat consumption. One of them is the Meat Free Mondays movement, which was occurring in 29 countries worldwide in the beginning of 2014. Plus, there are several organizations established around the world with the purpose of promoting a Meat Free life and animal welfare. Some names to consider are Eurogroup for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals which are directed to the developed countries, mostly the wealthy and middle-class citizens. However, there are also organizations whose target involves worldwide population and which promote sustainable agriculture and food consumption such as La Via Campesina in 79 countries within 5 continents worldwide, such as More and Better, and Food Sovereignty Movement.
Another major contribution to reduce the negative impact of meat on the environment is the protein substitution. This is a solution mostly targeted at the wealthy and middle-class populations who are typically more concerned about having a healthy diet and who can afford for these alternative products. To reduce this impact created, there are several protein alternatives to opt for such as tofu, quinoa, lentils, nuts and nut butters, seeds and tempeh; other than that, there are also high protein vegetable sources which are affordable to everyone such as some vegetables (spinach, broccoli) and legumes (beans, chickpeas). An interesting example is South Korea, a country where plant protein is highly demanded through the consumption of aquatic plants.
Nowadays, it is even easier to avoid meat consumption since there are several companies creating alternatives. Examples are Tofurky with a wide range of plant-based proteins such as beef, chorizo, sausages, or non-beef burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. In fact, the demand for plant-based foods has grown from 8% in 2017 to 20% last year in America.
“If the average American cut just a quarter pound of beef a week from their diet, it would be the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road for a year”.
— Bergen Sujatha
Lastly, the promotion of local feed production also decreases ecological footprint: it does not only avoid the transport of live animals and the typically highly and unhealthy processed meat products, but also has a lower impact on the environment than the mass production of the meat industry.
Studies show that in the United States food typically travels up to 4000 km before getting to one’s plate and in the UK, food is traveling 50% farther than it used to twenty years ago.
The number of vegetarians has been rising since the last decade. It shows that society is becoming more aware about how we can tackle the issue of climate change. The way we eat has a huge impact on the environment. It is one of the most powerful drivers behind most of the world’s major environmental issues, whether it’s climate change or biodiversity loss. Changing your diet can make a big difference on your personal environmental footprint, from saving water to reducing pollution and deforestation. It is imperative to do something to stop greenhouse gas emissions and it can start from small changes. Every small change has a huge impact if we’re all committed to a bigger cause. Together we can cut our footprint just by doing small changes in the way we eat. It is in our hands to stop climate change.
Sources:O Jornal Económico, Público, BBC News, Euronews, The Guardian, The Conversation, Vegetarian Center, New Food Economy, Portuguese Vegetarian Association, Medium